Eminent architectural critic meets eminent but-ever-so difficult architect.
Frank Lloyd Wright (1869–1959) was “a fascinating anachronism,” in many respects a man of the 19th century, Huxtable says. “He was always out of the mainstream; he fit neither the Neue Sachlichkeit of the 1920s nor the age of irony with which the century ended.” Sometimes this was not a problem, and sometimes it was: Wright’s old-fashioned insistence on craftsmanship and solid materials customarily led to hemorrhaging cost overruns—“there is no more expensive way to build than this ad hoc, custom procedure with its booby-trapped ‘extras,’” Huxtable sagely observes—but also to extraordinary works of art. Wright is now uncool, Huxtable writes, or at least his later buildings are, and she offers any number of reasons for us not to admire him. He was casually but not programmatically anti-Semitic, “uniformly politically incorrect,” a spendthrift, a martinet, haughty and arrogant, if with a sense of humor about it: when called to testify at a court case and asked to identify himself, Wright “announced that he was the world’s greatest architect. When asked how he could make such a statement, he replied, with visible enjoyment and a gleam in his eye, that he had no choice, he was under oath.” But Wright was also enormously intelligent, gifted, cultivated in the way of someone raised to esteem knowledge and beauty, a true innovator whose ideas on organic architecture gave the transcendentalism of 19th-century America voice in the future; a magpie, he “remembered everything, but copied nothing, absorbing what he liked and learned into his own creative thinking.” If he wore great swirling capes, demanded to be treated like visiting royalty or at least a rock star, designed buildings with odd lighting and leaky roofs, and didn’t pay his bills—well, still, he was always interesting.
So, too, is Huxtable’s biography: a fine and unsparing appreciation of an American original.